The Knowledge of Myth in Literature: The Fascination of Mythopoetic Space and William Drummond’s ‘The Statue of Medusa‘

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The Knowledge of Myth in Literature: The Fascination of Mythopoetic Space and William Drummond’s ‘The Statue of Medusa‘

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  1 S IBYLLE B AUMBACH   (Justus-Liebig, Giessen) T   HE K   NOWLEDGE OF  M  YTH IN  L  ITERATURE  : T   HE F   ASCINATION OF  M  YTHOPOETIC S  PACE AND  W   ILLIAM  D  RUMMOND ’ S T HE S TATUE OF M EDUSA * The connection between literature and myth is one of mutual dependence. Even though literature cannot be reduced to myth and myth cannot be reduced to literature, neither of the two can exist on its own: myth has always been “an integral element of literature”. 1  Not only does it offer a repository of multifaceted stories for the fictional world-making of literature, which expands, modifies, or rewrites mythological elements in the process of creative reception. It also provides the narrative strategies which literature evolves from as it is indicated in Aristotle’s Poetics (VI.1450a), where mythos refers to plot, to a unified construct of required and probable actions. Furthermore, as suggested by the etymology of mythos  (“word”), myth epitomizes the very srcin of literature, which is rooted in oral tradition and the performance of literary texts. Rather than referring to mythos in the Aristotelian sense of the term, which has been treated by Northrop Frye, for instance, who conceives myth as “a structural organizing principle of literary form”, 2  myth, in this paper, will be used to denote an invented, traditional story, “which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, […] or a natural phenomenon” ( OED 1a, “Myth”). The following analysis therefore will concentrate on the srcins of mythological narratives in classical antiquity and focus on stories as they * I would like to thank Peter von Möllendorff for his critical discussion of this essay. 1  Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology , San Diego, HBJ, 1989, p. 21. 2  Northrop Frye,  Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays , Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1965, p. 341.  2 have been transmitted and received by Greek and Latin literature and which have henceforth served as a foundation for modern myth-making, providing the mythological archive for characters and themes in literature and art. For the purpose of this paper and the investigation of a possible (dis-)connection of literature and myth, “literature” will be understood as the corpus of texts that have entered into writing or printing, which allows for a first differentiation between literature and myth, which has emerged from story- telling . While being rooted in oral tradition, myth is contingent on its translation into other media, primarily art and literature to preserve and perpetuate its imagery as well as its “knowledge”, which becomes retrievable in different cultural, geographical, and temporal space. Considering the fact that the understanding of mythological elements that appear in art ultimately requires their re-embedding into a literary dimension where they become “readable” and decipherable, literature emerges as the supreme instrument for the transportation of mythical stories. Thus, literature is not only constituted by, but also constitutive for the communication of myth. Even though the differentiation of literature and myth is not unproblematic insofar as myth cannot exist outside literature while literature does not collapse in myth, the conflation of the two dismisses their different connection to “knowledge”, which, whilst often overlooked, is nonetheless very significant for a closer analysis of the “knowledge of literature”, which greatly relies upon, yet cannot be reduced to the “knowledge of myth”. In an attempt to conceptualize the triangular relationship of literature, myth, and “knowledge”, the first part of this paper will consider the functionalization of myth in the dissemination of knowledge in literature, before, in the second part, William Drummond’s mythopoetic account of The Statue of Medusa  shall serve as an example for the ways in which mythological elements are retrieved both as evidence of the knowledge of literature and as a device for (self-)reflecting this knowledge. To what extent does the employment and emplotment of mythological elements support the dissemination of knowledge in literature? In what ways is the knowledge of literature, the self-awareness of its significance as medium for the communication of knowledge, and its critical self-reflection on its educative function as well as its own  3 “thinking” 3  affected by integrating the knowledge of myth into the literary realm? Drummond’s epigram provides a particularly apt example for further investigating these questions since it does not merely revive a mythical figure by proclaiming its death, a figure which moreover incorporates the tension between “blindness and insight” (Paul de Man), between beginning and closure, seeing and believing, and which is thus situated at the crossroads of the limits and potentialities of both myth and literature and their share in the dissemination of knowledge. It also weaves this tension of srcin and death into a mythological narrative, which on the textual as well as on the metatextual level raises a monument to the memory of myth while re-membering and restoring its silent power of fascination 4  in a poetic framing. Furthermore, with regard to concepts of “knowledge”, the question arises to what extent the figure of the monstrous Gorgon can be regarded as an emblem not only of poetic fascination but also of the production of knowledge and thus become an adequate image for illustrating the (inter-)relation of knowledge that is generated or communicated by literature and myth. The “knowledge” of literature and myth The idea that literature might harbour its own mode of knowledge reaches back into antiquity where the knowledge of literature was not always seen as being desirable or particularly beneficial as it is famously expressed by Plato’s expulsion of poets from the city in his  Republic . But what kind of knowledge is it that literature affords? In contrast to “opinion” or “belief”, “knowledge” constitutes information that is ultimately defensible. The classification of information into the categories of “knowledge” and “belief”, however, poses an epistemological problem since it is ultimately bound to the individual’s sense of certainty rather than deriving from any kind of objective “knowledge”. While knowledge can be defined as founded and thus justifiable understanding or reproducible modes of thinking and acting, it is never static but always in process: 3  Cfr. Stathis Gourgouris,  Does Literature Think? , Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2003. 4  For an analysis of literary fascination cfr. Hans Ulrich Seeber, “Funktionen der Literatur im Prozess der Modernisierung”, in Marion Gymnich & Ansgar Nuenning, Funktionen von  Literatur: Theoretische Grundlagen und Modellinterpretationen , Trier, WVT, 2005, esp. pp. 92-95.  4 progressing over time, its scope develops to integrate the latest findings in the studies of culture, history, philosophy, and the sciences. As well as engaging in fictional world-making, literature absorbs knowledge that is generated outside the literary realm and appropriates this knowledge in a dynamic process of negotiation and exchange. 5  The knowledge transmitted by literature’s complex semiotic system can be classified into three different categories: 6  1) specific or sectoral knowledge , which is bound to a particular field of knowledge and comprises expert knowledge, which can be declarative or procedural, 2) strategic knowledge , which serves as an heuristic tool focussing on processes that are not restricted to a specific area of knowledge and which reveal strategies of how to close a specific gap in one’s own system of knowledge as well as ways to infer, structure, and add new knowledge to one’s intellectual reservoir, and finally 3) meta-cognitive knowledge , which serves to critically reflect upon both the sources of knowledge and man’s capability of epistemological reasoning. As Michael Wood remarks, however, following Roland Barthes’ claim that literature comes into being wherever words have savour and expanding the etymological connection between knowledge ( savoir  ) and savour ( saveur  ), literature can only give us “a taste of knowledge […] a sample, rather than an elaborate or plentiful meal. We are going to have to go elsewhere for the continuous main course”. 7  The sapere aude of literature resonates especially in the gaps of knowledge that are integrated into literary narratives to promote, in a maieutic manner, the interaction of text and recipient by activating the reader’s collective and private knowledge reservoir. Within the indeterminable space of literature’s archive, cultural knowledge, 8  which is informed by science, religion, aesthetics, literature, and myth, is not only stored and made retrievable for future generations but it is restored, re-contextualised, and revived either to affirm and contribute to existent systems of knowledge or to establish a 5  Cfr. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in  Renaissance England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. vii. 6  Cfr. Ralf Klausnitzer,  Literatur und Wissen: Zugänge - Modelle – Analysen , Berlin & New York, Walter de Gruyter, 2008, pp. 30-32.   7  Michael Wood,  Literature and the Taste of Knowledge , Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 10. Cfr. Roland Barthes,  Leçon , Paris, Seuil, 1978, p. 21. 8  For the relation of cultural knowledge and literature see Birgit Neumann, “Kulturelles Wissen und Literatur”, in Marion Gymnich, Birgit Neumann & Ansgar Nuenning, eds., Kulturelles Wissen und Intertextualität  , Trier, WVT, 2006, pp. 29-51.  5 subversive counter-discourse, 9  which emphasizes the shifting relations and blind spots of powers in ongoing discourses of knowledge. Considering that information does not only have to be verified by critical revision in order to be regarded as “truth” but it also has to be secured and fixed in order to qualify as “knowledge”, literature plays a seminal role in the communication of knowledge while revealing a certain awareness of its mediality, its capacity for absorbing and translating knowledge as well as its ability to reflect upon its own literariness, its fictional world-making, and the aesthetics of its reception. Literature therefore does not only communicate but also generate knowledge insofar as it conveys certain strategies of reading and introduces its readers to the art of knowledge acquisition by involving them in the process of restoring knowledge through certain stimuli integrated in the text, through names, events, dates, or allusions to discoveries or findings that activate their reasoning while evoking a profound awareness for the fascinating power of texts. Thereby, the structure and design of mythical stories become highly effective tools: besides contributing to the collective symbolism of literature and fostering the promotion of knowledge on an interdiscoursive level, the explanatory nature of myth, its concrete imagery, entertaining quality, universality, and trans-temporality explain its supreme and popular role in the generation and communication of knowledge in literature. Furthermore, for literature, myth becomes the locus for self-reflexion of its “knowledge”: not only does myth refer to the srcins of narratives and provide the structural devices for communicating information, 10  but the employment of mythos  supports the approximation of literature and logos . Literary scholars have debated over the course of development regarding mythos and logos  and the question of whether the transferral of knowledge went from mythos to logos , i.e. from the transmittance of knowledge via “a common, unexamined assumption” 11  to a story whose validity or truth can be demonstrated through rational reasoning, and thus progressed from 9  For a detailed analysis and expansion of Michel Foucault’s discourse analysis and its potentialities for literary criticism see Rainer Warning, “Poetische Konterdiskursivität: Zum literaturwissenschaftlichen Umgang mit Foucault”, in  Die Phantasie der Realisten , München, Fink, 1999, pp. 313-345. 10  Cfr. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology , tr. Claire Jacobsen & Brooke Schoepf, New York, Basic Books, 1961, esp. pp. 206-231, as well as The Raw and the Cooked  , tr. John & Doreen Weightman, New York, Octagon Books, 1979. 11  Roland Barthes,  Mythologies , Paris, Seuil Points, 1957, pp. 9f.
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